To keep churches alive we must foster maturity in younger members

The Non-Conformist tradition of Christianity has yielded some of the finest theological teachers and preachers throughout history. There are few who encapsulate reformed ministry better than C.H. Spurgeon, a man heralded as “the prince of preachers.” Sadly, it seems, many reformed churches obsequiously quote Spurgeon’s teaching whilst ignoring his notable young age. By fifteen, Spurgeon had delivered his first sermon and, in the same year, was installed as the pastor of a small Baptist church in Cambridgeshire. By the age of nineteen Spurgeon had published his first literary work: a gospel tract. Rather than seeking to emulate this, many churches fail to offer their youth any responsibility and afford them no opportunities to exercise maturity. As a result, young people within such churches can often appear childish and irresponsible. In reality, however, they are simply acting in accordance with that expected of them.

Many reformed people seek to argue that Spurgeon’s proficiency and maturity were exceptional in one so young. This, however, does little to explain John Calvin publishing his first literary work at the age of 23, George Whitefield’s ordination prior to canonical age, Jonathan Edward’s pastorship of a church aged 19, Henry Scougal’s ordination and ministerial post at the age of 22, Robert Murray M’Cheyne’s pastorship of a church aged 22, George Muller’s work with the London Missionary Society aged 23 and his pastorship aged 24 to name but a few. Spurgeon, although arguably exceptionally gifted, was by no means exceptional by virtue of his age. Indeed, following in a similar vein to those who preceded him, Spurgeon was simply adhering to the expectations of the day in becoming a preacher so young. Given this, one must ask why such men and women are not being raised in the church today?

One can argue that there is a trend within reformed churches that seeks to perpetualise youth. There are two main ways in which this happens. Firstly, churches afford no opportunities for young people to exercise maturity presuming them to be too immature to take on positions of responsibility. Secondly, churches section off “the young people” and create activities for them apart from the whole church body.

Let us consider the point that young people are often given no opportunity to serve in a meaningful way in the life of the church. Reformed churches rightly hold teaching and preaching as paramount and wish to see it fulfilled competently and soundly. This, however, often leads to an unwillingness to let young people explore the possibility that they might hold this gift. Of course, one must have some confidence that the person in question is capable of speaking adequately to the congregation. Sadly, young people are often not even considered for service in the areas that may offer insight into their ability to command the pulpit. Naturally, the open air would be a prime place for young men to learn how to structure a talk, speak to crowds and gain confidence in their abilities to handle the word of God. Lamentably, many reformed churches no longer see the open air as a valid means of sharing the gospel, despite Spurgeon’s keen belief in it (set out powerfully in ‘A treatise on open-air preaching’). No other ‘acts of service’ within the church quite compare to open-air preaching as a training ground for prospective speakers and, with its going out of fashion in the reformed world, there is no basis upon which one can now show any potential for speaking in the pulpit.

On top of lacking opportunities to show an aptitude for preaching, young people are rarely, if ever, asked to lead any works that the church engages in. On occasion, a young person might be asked to act as a ‘helper’ in a given work, however, this is often only under the heavy supervision of one considered more adept and  more mature and almost never as on an equal footing with those leading the work. As such, any level of responsibility that would have gone along with such a position becomes null and void and simply perpetuates this idea that young people lack maturity.

We must also consider the point that young people are often sectioned off apart from the church and treated as a separate entity to the main church body. In this, young people are not expected to act with maturity. In the first instance, there is nobody in a position of responsibility for young people to replicate when they are treated apart from the main body of the church. Those that lead such groups seek to make things more accessible to ‘the young people’, however, it often causes young people to believe that:

  1. The church does not view them as mature enough to engage with the main church body
  2. The church value their thoughts and opinions less than that of the main church body
  3. There is no expectation to act with maturity
  4. There is no expectation that they should take on any responsibility

These core beliefs do not encourage young people to take an active role in the life of the church. Moreover, as long as they are categorised as “the young people” and are expected to act  immaturely they will inevitably fulfill this expectation. This in turn makes it more difficult for them to serve properly in the church.

We must also consider the impact of sectioning off the church body by age. The real danger of this is that the church encourages young people to act immaturely until they reach an age at which they should become mature. This leaves no time for young people to adapt to the new standard of behaviour expected of them. In effect, they are expected to go from ‘youth group member’ to ‘mature church member’ overnight. Such a model for young people does not equip them at all in their spiritual walk and does even less to equip our churches with the skills they so badly need.

The answer to the problem is not difficult. Firstly, we must foster an expectation in our churches that young people are to act with maturity. In this, we should offer positions of responsibility to them through which they can serve in the church. For example, when we ask young people to help lead works in the church we should adopt them fully into the leadership and place them on an even footing with the other leaders rather than treating them as an extra pair of hands with no real responsibility.

Secondly, we should look to abolish groups that water down teaching to those in their teens, twenties and sometimes even thirties. Such people should well be able to sit and listen to services and, in some cases, should be leading and speaking in the services themselves. How can we genuinely expect our churches to thrive if we are denying those even in their thirties the opportunity to exercise, and in some cases discover, where their gifts lie?

Thirdly, Sunday schools that run during church services mean that children, in some cases up to their late teens, are never expected to sit and listen for the duration of a sermon. It can, of course, be argued that there is value in a separate service for young children that may help in teaching them biblical truths in a way more understandable to them. However, certainly by their teens, young people should not only be able but should be expected to sit and listen to teaching as any other member of the congregation. There is no reason why preachers should not be able to make their sermons relevant to them as well as to the rest of the congregation.

Even through these things we can find young people adopting an air of maturity and growing into roles of responsibility. If we continue to condescend to young people and hold no expectation for them to act with maturituy we seal the death of our churches. It is the young people who are to carry on the work of the church after the current eldership and leaders of church works step down and have gone. If we do not help young people to determine where their gifts lie, even before their twenties and thirties, we consign them to never finding out. Indeed, how can our churches survive if we have no intention of training young men and women to continue their work? The reality is, if we condescend to young people and expect them to act immaturely we cannot be surprised when they offer no signs of responsibility as they get older. Until we expect something else from them we force young people into their own immaturity.